"Be prepared for the culture shock", we are warned before we arrive in Bangkok. We're staying with Fiona and her partner Gordon until we have recovered. Flying definitely exaggerates the differences. No time to get used to the change, you step from the shabby departure lounge of Kolkata and emerge from the plane into the gleaming shiny space of Bangkok's newish airport. It's a relief to go from the heat and humidity of Kolkata to the...erm.....heat and humidity of Bangkok. But here everything seems to be air-conditioned. And spotless.
And it's not all temples and seedy sex shows (anyone for ping-pong?). There's the old part of the city along the river, with a variety of wats (temple complexes) and the old palace buildings, Chinatown and its markets. This area is then surrounded by the modern development - a host of high-rise buildings, shopping malls, busy roads and the Sky Train - the elevated railway which makes for a great ride through the concrete jungle but cuts out the sky when you're down on street-level. This is the most modern city we have visited on our journey by far. We are very well looked after by Fiona and Gordon, who are generous hosts. They feed us well on healthy breakfasts and good dinners and take us out to swim and eat at the British Club, an oasis of calm and peace slap bang in the middle of it all. With a very good all-day English breakfast to boot. Out on the streets it's a totally different eating experience, as hawkers sell food at pavement stalls everywhere. Sometimes the stall does a one-dish speciality, or there's a few things to choose from. Of course our Thai is lousy, but the old finger-pointing and a lot of smiling does the trick. Everyone is happy to help. We're not always certain what we are eating (what is this mushy green mini-loofah thing in the soup?), but the standard is good. We haven't eaten so much pork for a long time, and we're hoping the swine 'flu doesn't make it here.....
Bangkok is awash with markets and some are open only in the evenings. It seems like Thais love shopping - what with all the shopping malls, the markets and a 7-11 every 50 metres down the street (handy for choc-ices). We can pick up guide books, flip-flops and clothes - the price determines whether you are buying a fake copy or the real thing. It's difficult to discern in such a short time spent only in Bangkok whether there's anything more to the country than just eating and shopping.........(did someone say beach?)
Gayle and Fiona were at SOAS together and at the week-end there's a 40th birthday party for another SOAS friend, Ashvin, at the beach. There's a chance to catch up with other old lags from university and meet some of Ashvin's colleagues. It's our kind of party - Ashvin has arranged for a barrel of beer, wine and some tasty food at a little beach shack. Sadly, the DJ gets drunk and ends the night playing maudlin songs from the 80's, but you can't have everything.
Back in Bangkok we start to have second thoughts about our route plan. Our intention was to travel southwards through Malaysia to Indonesia and then up to the Philippines before heading to China. Now we are considering a quick visit to Malaysia and then returning to Thailand and getting to China via Laos. This leads us to think about Myanmar as well. Our route plan is in danger of looking like a monkey-puzzle tree. As always when faced with a choice, we are lousy at making a decision. However, we are good at procrastination, so we buy a train ticket that will take us to Penang in Malaysia and defer any decisions until we've done some research/coin-tossing.
Our last night in Bangkok is spent wandering around Chinatown looking for food. We are accosted by Dia, who was at the beach party, and who is helping out at her mum's stall. It turns out that pork dishes are not doing so well, what with talk of swine 'flu, so chicken has been added to the menu. Dia's grandmother left China to come here and gave her daughter a Thai first name. Dia's mother in turn has given her a full Thai name. When we ask what part of China her grandmother comes from she doesn't know, and neither does her sister. So, we ask, are you Chinese or Thai? Both, comes the reply.